Category Archives: US Politics

Teddy’s Words of Wisdom


Roosevelt quote
I’m not a great student of American history – my tastes run to other places and people: Napoleon, Casanova, Elizabeth I, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, China…. but I do read about it. Most recently Rick Perlstein’s history of the American Sixties, Nixonland. And in that book I came across a powerful, moving quotation from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that I wanted to share because it still resonates today:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Roosevelt said this in a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” made at the Sorbonne, Paris, France,  23 April, 1910. Source: Wikiquote.

I would write it in stone and place it in front of each member of council at the table as a reminder at every meeting that we do our best and that’s what matters. We may stumble, we may even fall now and then, but we stay in the ring, we finish what we started, and we do what we believe is right, what is best for everyone.

I know how much each of you at the table care, how hard you work, how much you ponder and worry over the questions we must all answer, and how much it means to each of you to have the best community we possibly can. You do the work, you stand in the ring and take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but you hang in because you care. And I know how much it hurts to have outsiders tear at you, to belittle and mock you, to denigrate your efforts. To try and hurt without offering to help.

At the end of the day, you can take pride in your accomplishments and your values. You are in the arena, where it counts most.

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Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold


Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.** Continue reading

Why are Pickup Trucks so Anti-Pedestrian?


Pickup truck exhaustTake a look at the back of any of today’s pickup trucks. Notice the exhaust pipe, under the vehicle? It points to the right. The same side of the road that pedestrians and cyclists use.*

Notice the bike lane in the photo – that’s where cyclists will be when this truck passes by them. No place to move to avoid the fumes.

1951 truckYet I have seen vintage trucks with that design, as in the photo to the right (even here in town). Several, in fact in just the past week. I don’t know the date of the change from rear to side exhaust, but it seems to be at least two decades old. I also know there are aftermarket kits that will return your exhaust to the rear on pickup trucks.

By design, modern pickup trucks are meant to spew their exhaust directly at pedestrians and cyclists they pass, unlike most cars, vans and even SUVs which exhaust to the rear. And a very few that exhaust to the left.

Diesel exhaustIt’s got to be a deliberate, anti-social design by manufacturers. Designers surely think of these things. They’re not stupid, even if they are misanthropic towards pedestrians and anyone on a bicycle. They planned it. They know where people walk or cycle.

Why, one has to ask, are governments permitting what is clearly a hazard – even a threat – to pedestrians in truck design to continue? Continue reading

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes


Facebook image
What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

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The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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The Hobgoblins under the Lobbyist Bridge


Lobbyist cartoonLobbyist. For some, the word conjures frightening images of nefarious trolls and ogres in Armani suits lurking under the bridges and in the woods in the dark night, snatching unwary politicians and dragging them down to whatever hell the gullible and naive descend to (a hell cleverly paved with gold and champagne flutes).

The very word itself is printed in bold and in colour in some comments, just in case you might miss it and the boogeyman-thrill the hiss of the word gives. Lobbyisssst… my precioussss….

That’s in part because the popular impression of lobbying derives from watching American TV news, and sitcoms. In the USA, the lobbying industry has been likened to a shadow government, pulling the strings of the legislators while filling their pockets with cash. Lobbyists there seem to be able to buy votes with impunity and openly. It’s not the same everywhere, however.

For others, the word simply refers to someone doing a job, like a carpenter, a lawyer, a dentist… in fact a lawyer could be called a lobbyist with a law degree (we’ve seen lawyers acting as lobbyists on behalf of their clients in front of council many times). And like any other profession, lobbyists have a role to play in public life and government.

Lobbyist cartoonWhile lobbyists often get a bad rap in the media because of their association with corporate interests, they also represent many smaller commercial concerns and NGOs. Some represent non-profit groups, charities, environmental agencies, health agencies and even private schools. Lobbyists helped change the smoking laws in Ontario to prevent smoking in public places, bars and restaurants. Lobbyists helped change the pesticide use laws to prohibit toxic chemicals from being used on public property. So clearly they’re not all bad, and in fact are often important to the governance process.

Lobbyists play an important role in bringing issues and challenges to the political forefront. How much they actually influence municipal governments is difficult to assess.

“The defence of lobbying is that it is not only an inevitable part of life but a necessary and positive one. It is simply a modern professional embodiment of the ancient right of people to petition their rulers, and, by extension, to seek the advice and support of others to help them do so. Modern governments are responsible for a vast range of policy areas which involves drafting and implementing detailed and intricate laws and regulations. On their own they cannot hope to keep abreast of all the information and opinions they need to take into account. Lobbying is a means of providing them with the raw material they need to make informed decisions which reflect different interests in their societies.”
Trevor Morris & Simon Goldsworthy: PR Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Because of the negative connotations associated with the term, lobbyists often prefer to call themselves “public affairs” practitioners.

“There is some confusion over the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘public affairs’. Some authorities argue that there are subtle differences between the two, suggesting the lobbying is process of speaking with political actors, whilst public affairs refers to the complete process. The term lobbyist is often eschewed by consultants because of its shady undertones. However, in this fact sheet (and all others) the terms will be used interchangeably.”
www.publicaffairslinks.co.uk/

Others try to highlight their difference with the term “advocates” rather than lobbyist. A rose by any other name… Others have called lobbying “advocacy journalism“. The American League of Lobbyists has in its code of ethics this statement:

Lobbying is an integral part of our nation’s democratic process and is a constitutionally guaranteed right. Government officials are continuously making public policy decisions that affect the vital interests of individuals, corporations, labor organizations, religious groups, charitable institutions and other entities. Public officials need to receive factual information from affected interests and to know such parties’ views in order to make informed policy judgments. In exercising their rights to try to influence public policy, interests often choose to employ professional representatives to monitor developments and advocate their positions, or to use lobbyists through their membership in trade associations and other membership organizations. Tens of thousands of men and women now are professional lobbyists and represent virtually every type of interest.

Why do companies or groups use lobbyists? Because not everyone is calm and confident as a speaker, is comfortable doing public presentations, has the time to research and meet with everyone. When you can’t do the job yourself, you hire a carpenter to fix the stairs, a mechanic to fix your car, an electrician to put in new lighting. Same principle.

The unfathomable paranoia over lobbyists is likely more driven by petty partisan politics than by any actual threat they pose to democracy. The word is used to scare small children, but like all ghost stories, it proves a risible threat in the sockdolager of rational thought.

Five years ago, Collingwood council considered creating a lobbyist registry. Staff report 2008-05 (April 7, 2008) noted

Some of the options may be viewed as solutions to problems that Collingwood, as a much smaller municipality, does not encounter.

In other words, some members of council were looking to fix what wasn’t broken. I wrote a humorous piece about that discussion, a few days later on my old blog.

The issue brewed and stewed like a fart in a crowded elevator on a long trip to the penthouse, until June 23, 2008, when Coun. Edwards moved and I seconded a motion to dump the idea. It passed (5-4? I don’t recall – the EB story isn’t online). I also wrote about that, more seriously, on my old blog. Back then I wrote:

It was one of those ‘bubble ideas’ – ideas that sound good at election time and make great sound bites, but are fragile shells, ill-conceived plans, hollow of substance.

The idea seemed to have been buried in the post-election kitty litter with the rest of the impractical proposals, but up it came last April in a staff report (C2008-05). But that initial discussion had no conclusion (or rather debate was truncated before we arrived at one), and left to simmer for a few months.

I thought the issue had died its deserving death, but no, it continues to rise from the grave every now and then like one of those tired old internet hoaxes about Bill Gates giving you $100 to forward this email to everyone in your contact list. Someone always seems to be able to spin a conspiracy in which a lobbyist plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf. We need a website that debunks these political myths like Snopes.com does internet myths.

This is a small town. We can figure this out without the need for any more layers of bureaucracy or red tape.

We don’t need a lobbyist registry anymore than we need a spaceport, an aquarium or a bronze statue of a former mayor in front of the library. Like I wrote in 2008, this would put a wall between politicians and the people they represent, and flies in the face of the often-promised-but-seldom-delivered “open, accountable and transparent” government.